Birds of Prey

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Our nature is replete with innumerable varieties of birds and animals that are necessary to maintain a good balance in the chain of ecosystem. Apart from their physical characteristics the major qualities that differentiate these birds into groups is their eating habits. Birds are herbivorous, omnivorous or carnivorous. A sharp beak, hooked beak and sharp talons, and an amazing eyesight are teh characteristics of the birds of prey. Birds of prey belong to the carnivorous type and pick up their prey on wings. They have a very clear sharp vision and keen senses that help them focus on the most distant prey within matter of seconds. These birds are best identified by their sharp hooked beaks and dangerous talons that tear the flesh in sharp bites. Therefore, these birds are also known as ‘raptors’. The phrase ‘hawk’s vigil’ or ‘eagle’s eye’ clearly describes the strengths of these birds to spot things clearly from long distances.



What is the classification of Birds of prey?

Birds of prey are classified as:
Class: Aves
Subclass: Neornithes
Order: Falconiformes
Family: This order has five families namely Sagittariidae (secretary bird), Pandionidae (Ospreys), Accipitridae (Old World vultures), Falconidae (falcons) and Cathartidae (New World vultures).
Species: The order Falconiformes has 286 species out of which 217 species alone belongs to Accipitridae family



What are the physical characteristics of birds of prey?

There are many varieties of birds of prey and hence their physical characteristics also vary depending upon the type of family they belong to.

  • Size: African pygmy falcon (Polihierax semitorquatus) is the smallest bird from this order weighing about 60 g with a wingspan of around 1ft. whereas the largest bird of prey is Andean condor, weighing about 14 kg having wingspan of 10.5 ft. Most of the birds of prey are between 7 to 12 kg size.
  • Color of Feathers: Generally birds of prey have light body and feather colors such as white, blue, gray, black, rust or brown. But there are some birds like the king vulture (Sarcoramphus papa) that have bold patterns on their necks with bright yellow, orange and black color.
  • Body shape: These birds have one thing that helps them look different and that is their body shape which is in fusiform. This helps them feel lighter while flying.
  • Head: The head comprises of eyes that are set on the either sides of the face, nostrils located below the upper bill, and ears that lie below the either side of eyes. The beak of birds of prey is sharp at the edges and is hooked at the tip. The beak is made from horny layers of keratin (bone). Birds of prey do not have teeth and hence their beak performs all the functions of eating, like piercing the flesh, taking a bite and then breaking it into small pieces.
  • Limbs: Hind limbs are used for walking, running, jumping, grasping prey and perching while the forelimbs have been metamorphosed into wings that are covered with feathers.
  • Feathers: Tail is covered with feathers and is joined to the tail bone (pygostyle). It  help the birds during flight.
  • Skin: These birds have thinner skin as compared to vertebrae
  • Diet: The hooked beak helps these birds to tear and pierce the food. These birds usually catch a live prey or feed on carrions. Some of these birds apart from eating flesh eat fruits and berries.
  • Digestive system: Birds of prey excluding Owl have a crop stored inside its body. There are many things of the prey which these birds cannot digest such as feathers, hair and exoskeletons. These are converted into pellets in the gizzard and regurgitated into mouth. Owls are incapable of digesting the bones and hence the pellets regurgitated by them also contain bone pieces.
  • Sexual dimorphism: Birds belonging to this class display reverse sexual dimorphism, meaning the female is larger and bulkier than the male. Due to this difference in size, the pair can hunt different varieties of prey in their territory. As the speed and agility of the bird increases, the difference in the size also increases.




What is the wing shape of birds of prey?

Birds of prey have specially shaped wings adapted according to their foraging behavior. Birds belonging to different families have different shapes such as:

  • Falcons have long wings with narrowed angled edges which help them to dive or chase while catching prey
  • Hawks belonging to genus Accipiter have rounded and short wings that help them gain speed faster and maneuver themselves in dense vegetation
  • Most of the eagles and hawks have large, rounded wings that help them go up high in the sky.
  • Harriers and Ospreys have rounded, long wings that enable them to fly steadily over the lakes and water bodies very close to land for catching prey




What are the night time birds of prey?

Owls are known as the night time birds of prey or nocturnal raptors as they are naturally adapted to hunting during the night. These night time owls are divided into two families:

  • Tytonidae or barn owls
  • hawk owls

The barn owls are found all over the world while the hawk owls are only found in Australasian region. Further these owls are categorized into grass owls (living in grass covered plain habitats) and bay owls (inhabiting wet tropical forests). The facial features of owl help these birds to assess the sounds coming through the night. The ears of owl are arranged like funnel over the eyes in asymmetrical fashion, one above the other. Owl uses the difference in the time taken for the sound to reach the two ears to calculate the exact location and distance of the prey from its position. That is the reason why even during a dark night an owl swiftly swoops down a running rat on the ground. Green horned owl is known to have the sharpest of nocturnal vision and keen ear tufts. They can rotate their head in the angle of 270 degrees in complete circle and can pick up the prey from all sides.


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